New England Fisheries

Facing the Fishing Facts

Photo credit: Dieter Craasmann.

The bad news is that the emergency measures put in place this week by NMFS’s regional director John Bullard are drastic. If the past is any prelude to the future, the worse news is that the measures will not be sufficient to stop the collapse of cod. More likely, they won’t stem overfishing on Gulf of Maine cod and may only spread the problem by shifting increased effort offshore onto Georges Bank cod.

Is the Endangered Species Act the inevitable next management stop for cod? If so, there will be a broad loss of management control over cod and other fisheries that have a cod bycatch. Actually, a good case could be made that management control over groundfish should have been taken away from the New England Council years ago.

As to cod’s future, no one really knows. But given the persistent pattern of both overestimating the spawning biomass of cod and underestimating the fishing mortality over the past 20 years—not to mention the likely increase in non-fishing mortality and declines in cod’s reproductive success—threatened or endangered status for cod is hardly far-fetched or alarmist.

Cod management has failed over and over and public opinion about fishermen as stewards of the oceans in New England has plummeted not surprisingly.

Part of the backdrop and responsibility for this disastrous collapse has to rest with the groundfish industry spokespeople who testify and lobby at council meetings against effective quotas management measures. The same ones who have been hammering NMFS for “over-regulation” and “bad science” in the media and to Congress.

For every fisherman who was willing to publicly admit that things were getting worse out on the water, there always seemed to be an orchestrated group of fishermen willing to claim that there were so many cod that they couldn’t get away from them.

It was, of course, nonsense at least as far as the best available science is concerned. Those who may have been catching some of the few remaining aggregations of cod out on the water were not fishing sustainably. They were blindly fishing out their own future all the while blaming the federal government for their woes.

Industry pressure was also mounted to undercut the purposes and objectives of the essential fish habitat amendment so that the council and NMFS would reopen as much of the closed areas as possible and sooner rather than later. The preliminary studies suggesting that the closed areas might be the only management tool that was protecting some of the reproductively critical large female spawners made little difference to these fishermen.

The industry may have cried “more fish, more fish” too often now. The public doesn’t believe the fishermen anymore. The biology of cod belies the claims made by fishermen. And the Congressional delegation may now be waking up to the true costs of management failure for the futures of fishermen and fishing communities up and down the coast. Certainly, no more taxpayer groundfish bailouts seem likely.

And the fishermen who acted more responsibly by shifting their fishing focus away from cod in the last decade may now be caught in a new regulatory net as their fisheries fall victim to the legally required efforts to halt the cod collapse. Retrospective admissions by some groundfish spokespeople, now that the industry may have pushed for quotas that were too high in recent years, won’t save any jobs.

The precautionary principle should have triggered greater caution by the managers and the fishing industry in the face of mounting uncertainty about the health of the remaining cod biomass but it didn’t.

Now, the price has to be paid.



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